In 2011 a group of local attorneys who had taken a break from their legal careers launched the Pro Bono Network. Heena Musabji, co-founder and development director, says originally the mission was two-fold: “We wanted to allow people who had taken a break from legal work to get back into the field, plus we knew the need for legal aid was great. We wanted the organization to fill in this justice gap.”
She uses a fable to describe the work done by the Pro Bono Network. “Imagine there’s a fire in the forest, and all of the animals run out. A hummingbird flies over the fire with a drop of water in its beak and drops it out. Then flies back and does it again. When you see a problem, you do what you can.
“We knew the number of people who needed to be helped, but we didn’t know there were so many people who wanted to do this. We started with 10 people, and now, we have over 400 professionals that have touched the Pro Bono Network,” she says.
In Cook County, approximately one-half of the 1.2 million people who qualify for legal aid will need assistance in a given year, but current legal aid programs and pro bono organizations cannot meet that need. Musabji says that PBN works to manage that gap in need through its volunteer network. Today, PBN recruits, trains, places, and supports lawyers who want to be of service but have limitations on their availability or resources. PBN places volunteers in manageable projects that make a difference in the lives of those who cannot afford legal services.
Projects are varied and range from helping senior citizens or veterans with legal issues to working with clients on issues such as divorce, guardianship or domestic violence. PBN works to partner with legal aid agencies, and the group also takes on an educational role.
Musabji says the Lawyers in the Classroom project is an example of community outreach and education. “We go into the classroom and teach civics and try to get students to understand the legal system. If these children have ever had experience with the legal system, it was probably negative. It’s great to show them that it can be positive. We teach them what the legal system can do for them.”
With students at Oak Park’s St. Catherine/St. Lucy School, PBN volunteers assist students in putting the big, bad wolf from Little Red Riding Hood on trial. She says of the exercise, “We’re getting in at an elementary level, and helping the kids understand how the legal practice works and how civil law is there to protect you. We also teach them that they have a voice in the system.”
In addition to the mock trial, PBN volunteers with Lawyers in the Classroom, who are partnered with the Constitutional Rights Foundation. They teach students at area schools about legal topics such as how immigration works and why laws exist.
Musabji says for all of PBN’s projects, volunteers partner with existing legal aid agencies. With the Order of Protection Litigation, PBN partners with Legal Aid Chicago and Sarah’s Inn to provide legal representation at the Maybrook court in Maywood to assist women in obtaining orders of protection against abusive husbands or boyfriends.
She notes that the Maybrook courthouse was previously under-served by volunteer attorneys for women seeking orders of protection and that having a helping hand is vital. “Our clients already have gotten an emergency form of protection, but they have to go back to court to get a long-term plenary order of protection. It can be a very intimidating process. Often the women have to confront their abusers in a public forum, and many of these women did not have attorneys before we stepped in.”
What started as an organization for stay-at-home parent attorneys who might be looking to get back into the work force after taking time off, PBN has grown more than its founders expected, and Musabji says the organization has turned out to be a good fit for many.
“We found it appealed to more than just our target audience. We have retired attorneys, solo practitioners and those taking a break from the profession. We’ve attracted quite a variety of people. We train you and partner with organizations that have malpractice insurance. We want to do everything we can do to help you help the client.”